Y2k and social justice (99 day essay)

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Y2k and Social Justice: 99 days and counting

It's 99 days and counting to Y2k. Yesterday, the US Senate committee that has been investigating Y2k for the past year issued a report. Here are some quotes from its executive summary:

"The Y2K problem still has the potential to be very disruptive, necessitating continued, intensive preparation in the time remaining. Y2K risk management efforts must be increased to avert serious disruptions. "

"Pandemic self-reporting may result in overly optimistic Y2K projections."

"The heavily-regulated insurance, investment services, and banking industries are farthest ahead in their efforts; healthcare, oil, education, agriculture, farming, food processing, and the construction industries are lagging behind."

"The Committee conducted extensive research and held numerous hearings in 1999, but still cannot conclusively determine how extensive Y2K disruptions will be. However, the Committee has no data to suggest that the U.S. will experience nationwide social or economic collapse. Nonetheless, disruptions will occur and in some cases those disruptions will be significant. The international situation will certainly be more tumultuous."

Actions speak louder than words.

All summer long, there has been a full court press: "Y2k will be like a 3 day storm." Ask a hundred people, and 95 will say, "We ain't worried." Comes now the United States Senate, and while repeating the "three day storm" mantra, the evidence continues to accumulate that says: "this is no ordinary three day storm." Oil, agriculture, health care, transportation, the global shipping industry, tumult in other countries -- the situation looks increasingly critical to me. People talk all the time about the "advantages" of globalization -- but there are downside risks too. Now that we are integrated into the networks and economies of other countries, we will see serious adverse impacts from troubles overseas. Just one example: the Senate committee seems to be expecting disruptions in oil imports. I believe we currently are importing about 50% of our oil. Hmmm, what can this mean for e.g. the price of gasoline and kerosene? For the middle class, this is less of an issue, but for the poor? The Senate also says that mass transit systems are way behind in their Y2k remediation efforts. How many poor people ride the bus?

The only references to the sociological situations that accompany Y2k generally relate to: "people who panic are the primary problem." There seems to be a lot of concern that people stocking up may adversely impact the "just in time" inventory system that has evolved over the past 20 years. But wait a minute: the corporations have always insisted that they are bringing us the "best of all possible worlds." Is it possible that this isn't true? Is it possible that the continued waves of mergers, downsizing, and exporting of jobs has placed the US at risk? If the world's most prosperous and corporation-dominated economy can't handle the threat of a major emergency, what does that say about the wisdom of the economic choices the leaders of business and industry have made in the last 20 years? Are they perhaps afraid that people will find out that the globalized just-in-time inventory system is a naked emperor that may be placing people at risk of serious shortages of vital materials like food, fuel, and spare parts?

The process of panic is well described in the academic literature, and the strategy we are following for Y2k is seemingly designed to produce fear and panic: the problem has been marginalized, people are not making prudent preparations, they do not know what to do. Thus, if serious disruptions happen, fear, panic, and anger are likely results.

I have been consciously observing and commentating on the Y2k situation for about 18 months. When people tell me, "Y2k won't be much of an issue," the first thing I have learned to do is look at their social location. My experience is that the richer and more comfortable the social location of a person, the less interested they are in Y2k. Most poor people that I talk with "get" Y2k without much effort. The supermarket in my neighborhood (which is mostly poor and working class) has had 50 pound bags of beans and two large displays (in different parts of the store) of 25 pound bags of rice since early in the summer. Half of an entire aisle is devoted to gallon jugs of water. The parish I work at is in one of the richest 15 zip codes in the state: the grocery stores there have no such displays, and the bottled water section is mostly expensive mineral waters. If wisdom may be found in "listening to the poor," what is this saying to us?

There continues to be a sharp disconnect between the the public relations campaign's "let's all feel good about this" statements and the private, unpublicized actions of business and government:

1. Y2k budgets for government and business continue to increase.

2. The definition of Y2k-readiness is political, not technological. Y2k-readiness does not mean "We got everything fixed, tested, and verified." It doesn't mean "We got everything fixed." It doesn't even necessarily mean "We found all our problems."

3. Months ago, government and industry gave up on remediating all of their programs, and initiated triage programs to identify "mission critical" systems.

We should remember that triage is a process for dealing with an overwhelming disaster. This means that the grand program to beat the Y2k bug has already failed, but fortunately for the stock market, the impact of this has been kept from most people by cleverly designed public relations campaigns which pretend that fixing only the "mission critical systems" is all that is necessary.

Government estimates of "work completed" continue to rise based on redefinitions of what is a "mission critical system" and what isn't. Just this month, the Social Security system sent letters cutting off the benefits of thousands of people on "January 1, 1900" because of a y2k-related glitch in a system that had previously been identified as "non-mission critical."

4. Governments everywhere have abandoned their regulatory oversight responsibilities regarding the utility (electricity and natural gas) infrastructure. Generally, state "watchdog" agencies are simply receiving and filing reports from utilities, and they are not conducting independent audits or requiring independent verification of utility claims to y2k readiness. At the federal level, the Department of Energy abandoned its responsibilities to the North American Electric Reliability Council, an electrical industry body that receives reports from utilities and does not conduct independent testing. We all hope the utilities' reports are factual, but they are not made under oath, and they are protected by Y2k liability legislation from adverse consequences if their statements are found later to be inaccurate.

And don't we all know that corporations never lie to the public?

5. Government and business continue to miss deadlines for "100% readiness". 36 high impact federal programs remain non-y2k ready, and this includes Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and housing assistance. Readiness deadlines for these programs are slipping into December. (The feds have missed 3 different deadlines so far for 100% readiness, and they are about to miss the fourth -- September 30th.) It's not an accident that most of these programs serve the poor.) Yet, the government continues to assure us that there will be no nation-wide problems, only localized disruptions. 22% of the Fortune 500 corporations do not expect to have all their mission critical systems remediated by the "Century Date Change." The Senate report says most small and medium sized businesses have a "fix on fail" strategy. The assumption is that these fixes can be made quickly, but that isn't the current experience. Many companies have already had Y2k failures (some as a result of implementing Y2k fixes) and they are discovering that it can take weeks or months to find the problem and fix it. If spare parts are needed, what happens if the spare part company also has Y2k problems? Or if the shipping industry can't deliver?

6. Contingency planning is rising, and this is good, but it also indicates a perception that the problem will be much greater than most people are thinking. The majority of Fortune 500 corporations are building "Y2k war rooms" and the feds are completing work on a $40 million center to monitor and manage the Y2k crisis as it unfolds. So many corporations are building stockpiles that the Federal Reserve has noticed the phenomenon. While the government recommends a "3 day supply" for families, corporations are looking more in the direction of 90 day stockpiles.

7. Y2k liability has been limited in most states and at the national level. This has been a high legislative priority of business and industry and they pretty much got exactly what they wanted: they can say anything they want about their Y2k readiness now, and not be sued later.

8. Local governments have a very uneven record of Y2k remediation, and water and sewage systems in particular are at grave risk. These depend universally on utility power for pumping and require inventories of chemicals for water purification and waste water treatment. Most city water systems do not have backup generators.

These eight "signs of these times" add up to a situation where we should have severe doubts about the justice and truthfulness of the "Don't worry, Be happy" public relations campaign whose theme is, "Trust us, we have everything under control." I remember that the culture of death pervades our halls of governance and industry, and that we have sown for many decades in furrows of injustice. What plants bearing bitter fruit are about to flourish?

Our response to the Y2k situation is a question of social justice. The poor -- whose margins are the thinnest of all -- are being set up to take a major hit next year. Between the extremes of "total collapse" and "no effect at all" there is a wide range of possibilities, all of which may impact the poor with great force. To deny that there will be a "total collapse" is not to say that people won't be gravely harmed and that great tragedies will not happen. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that much of this harm could be mitigated by prudent preparations by individuals and by voluntary organizations, but there is little sign that this will happen, except perhaps in a vast last minute December 28th rush to the grocery stores.

The documents of the Second Vatican Council call all Catholics to carefully discern the signs of these times and to act in accordance with that discernment. I pray that at as these 99 days pass, we will be graced with the ability to be "wise as serpents, but harmless as doves."

And also that we will practice the virtue of prudence, and resist the temptation of procrastination.

Robert Waldrop on the memorial of Padre Pio, 1999 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Archbishop Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, Oklahoma City Holy Mary, Mother of God, help the helpless, strengthen the fearful, comfort the sorrowful, bring justice to the poor and peace to all nations. Amen. http://www.justpeace.org Opus Justitiae Pax! (this post was sent widely to Catholic cyberspace)

-- robert waldrop (rmwj@soonernet.com), September 28, 1999

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